Turn me loose
If anyone ever complains to you that this city lacks international sporting events of stature, you might point out that one the most important international competitions of one of the fastest-growing sports around is taking place on Thursday next week.
The fourth International Pole Championship, organised by the Hong Kong-based International Pole Dance Fitness Association (IPDFA), will be held at the Academy for Performing Arts in Wan Chai.
That's right: pole dancing has stripped its sleazy image and is now being seen as a sport. Said to be one of the most versatile forms of exercise around, it's taking off in a big way in this city and worldwide. This growing credibility has even fuelled negotiations between the sport's governing bodies and the International Olympic Committee to get it recognised officially as a sport.
Pole dancing has become mainstream largely because it's a very effective workout, say fitness professionals. It's excellent for everything from building core strength to muscle toning and calorie burning.
'It's a very good body toning exercise,' says Michelle Lam, lecturer at the Asian Academy for Sports and Fitness Professionals, which has worked with the IPDFA to design official pole dance instructor courses. 'If you look at pole dancers, they have the perfect body shape. As well as toning up your body, it also improves posture, agility and muscle endurance. I believe it's a very good exercise because it's well balanced between strength, flexibility and agility.
'The movement is more multi-dimensional than just a gym workout. In a gym, if you're working your biceps, you're just doing it through one plane of movement. With pole dancing, you use a lot of different muscles for each particular movement.'
Pole dancing as a form of exercise has less than a decade of history in Hong Kong, and in that time there's already been a complete transformation, say owners of pole dance studios.
What was at first an expat-dominated activity has now become far more popular with locals, at least where classes are concerned. Parties, mostly of the birthday and hen varieties, and with an emphasis on fun over fitness, are still more popular with expats.
Most of those attending classes are young, but daytime classes attract their fair share of older women - and there are even a handful of men going along.
It's caught on as an exercise class for a number of reasons, but the main one is that it's a workout so fun it doesn't feel like work.
'The majority of women come here for fitness,' says Symone Salamon of Pole Paradise Studio in Sheung Wan. 'Usually they're sick of the gym and want to do something they enjoy. You're not thinking all the time about how much more time you've got to run on the treadmill. And let's face it: what other workout can you do wearing heels?'
'It's a self-confidence thing, primarily,' adds Vee Lea of Causeway Bay studio Aerial Arts Academy, who's also on the board of the IPDFA. 'People do it to feel good about themselves. There's peer support and it's social - people get into the whole culture of it. The secondary thing - as ever - is that they want to lose weight.'
With some of the racy associations that pole dancing carries, there can of course be other motivations for taking it up.
'We do occasionally get a few women coming in and saying, 'It's my boyfriend's birthday in three months' time and I want to do something special',' says Salamon.
However, pole dancing's strip club history is fading into the background.
Tessa Yung, a group fitness instructor who teaches pole dance classes at Pure Fitness, says the stigma is going away. 'When you have [pole dancing] at Pure, you know it's pretty mainstream.'
It's also a lot more strenuous than it looks, says Lam. 'Some reports say you can burn 600 calories an hour - the same as with kickboxing. Even with just basic spins, you'll still burn 400 calories an hour. And when you're really enjoying the movements and having fun, the time passes much quicker.'
Working such a wide range of muscles - biceps, pectorals, deltoids, hamstrings, inner thighs, abs and glutes - makes stretching properly before class particularly important, says Lam. The only other real injury risk is a small possibility of bruising and chafing from the pole.
For obvious anatomical reasons, this can be a particular issue for male participants, who often take a more acrobatic approach to the sport. 'Some guys are a bit gung-ho,' says Salamon. 'I have to remind them to be careful when they try certain moves.'
Although men still represent a small minority of pole dancers, they have their own category at the International Pole Championships, alongside women, doubles and disabled people. All national champions were invited to participate in the event, but anyone could apply to be a competitor by sending in a video of themselves in action. The organisers received several hundred video applications, and eventually whittled the field down to 30 competitors from 11 different countries.
Watch competitive pole dancing and you'll see a sport that most resembles gymnastics, with a strong element of dance sport thrown in. Lea says that championship participants are being asked to present themselves very much as athletes, and the judging will reflect a combination of creative and technical skills.
The judging criteria for technical skills have been adapted from gymnastics and dance sport, while the more subjective creative and artistic judgment covers such things as concept, costume and choreography. The event will have seven judges, including a variety of choreographers, performers, dance coaches and sports coaches.
Getting the judging criteria right and organising the competition professionally are part of pole dancing's broader bid for official acceptability - one that also includes the instructor courses and the conversation with the IOC. 'Our mission is to have a regulated community for pole dancing as a sport and fitness activity,' says Lea.
With that in mind, an IOC delegation will be attending a pole dance showcase organised by the British-based International Pole Sports Federation in July, with a view to it being officially recognised as a sport - not, as some overheated media reports have suggested, to be included in the actual games.
Official recognition - just as sports such as dance, roller sports, sumo or surfing have had - would translate into greater promotion, development and, ultimately, respect for pole dancing.
'When people say it's just a phase or a trend - well, let's wait and see,' says Lea. 'I don't see any other young sport doing so much to fit itself into the sports and fitness culture.' Pole dancing, it appears, is going straight.
A pole new world
Where to learn your moves
Aerial Arts Academy, 16/F Parkview Commercial Building, 9-11 Shelter St, Causeway Bay, 2375 8088, aerialartsacademy.com
Pole Paradise Studio, 10/F CS Tower, 50-54 Wing Lok St, Sheung Wan, 2543 0198, poleparadisestudio.com
Pole Divas, 6/F Wai Hing Commercial Building, 17-19 Wing Wo St, Central, 2541 5157, poledivas.hk
Pure Fitness, studios in Central, Admiralty and Mong Kok, pure-fitness.com